In a Vibrant Virginia Virtual Community Conversation focusing on economic resilience and responses to COVID-19, panelists discussed reopening in their localities, innovation in their fields, and plans for the future.

The event, moderated by Dr. Margaret Cowell, associate professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, included panelists Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of Population Health Sciences at Virginia Tech; Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership; Stephanie Landrum, CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Department; Buddy Rizer, executive director of Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, and Christopher Zobel, professor of Business Information Technology at Virginia Tech.

People may often think of public health and the economy as butting heads with each other, but it doesn’t have to be that way, said Baker. “We want to make sure that we’re being able to open and open safely because If we take care of this now, keep slowing our opening, we’re going to have a better economic output later, as opposed as having to go back to the part where we’re shut down again. We really want to work together well to make that happen.”

COVID-19 has had a negative effect on many microbusinesses, including services, daycares, yoga studios, and hair salons. The new phase of economic development will focus on business retention, rather than attraction or expansion, Doughty said.

Despite the economic and health challenges people have faced during the pandemic, there have been bright spots. Montgomery Public Schools used their buses to deliver lunches to students eligible for the free lunch program. Said Zobel, "It's really important for us to explore reusing the capabilities that we’ve got and try to keep providing those services we provided before the pandemic.”

Other similar programs include the LEAP Market truck in Roanoke as well as Wing’s program to deliver library books. “The school bus idea has been really fantastic and some colleagues and I have been talking about, ‘How can we take that and use it to improve healthcare all the time?’ We have a lot of places in Southwest Virginia and other rural places in the state that don’t have a regular or full-service clinic where they are. So we’ve talked about how we can put something like that into place on a full-time basis,” Baker said.

“This pandemic has created a whole new level of necessity on many different levels and I think it is encouraging innovation,” said Landrum.

Rizer also said the pandemic has also brought people together. “The world has become so much smaller during all of this because this is not solely a United States problem. I’ve been buoyed by watching the way people have come together, crowdsourced ideas, and worked together to support each other.”

Vibrant Virginia is a statewide initiative committed to fostering collaboration between universities and communities, with the goals of building connections between urban and rural, and creating a Virginia full of economic vitality. "Virginia Tech and an array of partners including University of Virginia, Virginia State University, University Virginia College at Wise, and our Virginia Cooperative Extension service are all working together to share best practices, build new high-impact teams, and make higher education a better partner on issues that you and your communities care about,” said John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development.

Watch the June 23 Conversation here.